Preparing for Surgery

Tomorrow I’ll have surgery to remove part of my left breast.

Pause.

Deep breath.

Decide I don’t need to cry again.

How do I feel about surgery?

Well, having someone cut part of your body out is always going to be a little frightening. It’s not just the concerns about staph infections, general anaesthetics and human error, it’s also the whole idea of being cut open.

As usual, my preference is to stare that fear in the face and growl back at it. Grrrrrrrr.

I’m remembering that when I started I was resigned to losing at least one, and possibly both breasts. That might still be a part of my future but for now, thanks to the tumour-shrinking chemotherapy, I’m having what’s called ‘breast conserving surgery’.

Thanks to a quirk of my DNA and my dubious good fortune, the cancer occurred in my larger breast so there’s a possibility they will finally match after all these years. My surgeon tells me that my left breast might sit a bit higher and that if that happens, “we’ll just get you to come back and we’ll give the other one a lift.” As if surgery was something you just pop in for on your way to the shops.

It’s necessary to have a gap between the end of chemotherapy and surgery. My body was actually pretty strong at the end of my treatment and by red and white blood cell counts stayed nice and high all the way through. (Note to self; must blog about what I ate to achieve this). My oncologist was happy for me to have surgery as soon as two weeks after the end of treatment but with my last dose on the 23rd of December we backed into the Christmas/New Year period. My surgeon also took some time off to have surgery for carpel tunnel syndrome on one of her hands. “Very straight forward. I’ve already had one hand done.”

It’s been occasionally nerve wracking to cross the bridge between chemo and surgery. I’ve developed peripheral neuropathy as a consequence of my chemotherapy so my hands and feet feel as if I’ve had them buried in snow. My grip is unreliable and a drop things. I need to place my feet deliberately and avoid uneven surfaces. It might get better with time. It might not. It’s a small price to pay for my life.

I’ve felt steadily stronger and healthier as the effects of the paclitaxel wear off. My hair is starting to grow. The rash on my arms has healed completely. The hot flushes persist but I’m feeling like myself again. It’s an opportunity to exhale, to rest, to laugh with friends and enjoy my life. I’ve been occasionally tired but nothing like the post-steroidal crash I was expecting. Life is good.

The trick has been, as always, to stay in the moment and enjoy life and not to obsess about what might be happening in my body now that the chemotherapy has stopped. I feel as if I don’t have cancer any more. When I talk about my health, I don’t feel like saying “I have cancer.” I feel like saying, “I need surgery and radiation treatment to make sure that I stay cancer free.”

Am I delusional? Only pathology can tell us that.

I was hoping there would be another ultrasound after that brilliant experience several weeks ago when we confirmed that three of my tumours where dead and gone and the remaining primary tumour was unstable. My oncologist said that it was unnecessary because it wouldn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. I could still have cancer even though the scan was clear. I might not have cancer even though the scan showed a ‘ghost’ of the primary tumour; it could be dead tissue. The last scan was enough to know that the chemotherapy was working extremely well. At the time, I had been cautioned not to expect anything so early in my treatment. I was overjoyed when we saw the results.

How much of my success can be attributed to the chemotherapy and how much of it to all of the other things I’ve been doing to support my treatment? Honestly, there is no scientific way of knowing. That’s the biggest problem with making any statements about cancer treatment. It’s not really possible to have a genuine ‘control’ for any one person. It’s possible that the chemotherapy alone is responsible for my result. It’s also possible that my diet and lifestyle changes alone would have had the same outcome (although I seriously doubt this). I do know that staying positive, doing my yoga every day, eating well and keeping this blog have all played a part in me getting to this point with relatively good health and a high degree of contentment.

I’ve spent the last few weeks doing all that I can reasonably do to prepare for tomorrow. I’ve had a one week break on Norfolk Island, thanks to my amazing Mum. I’ve eaten plenty of red meat (grass fed and organic), green leafy stuff (particularly parsley), mushrooms, fresh berries, kefir, vegetables, hemp seed and bananas. I’ve done yoga every single day. I’ve read up on what’s likely to be involved in my surgery because I’m one of those ‘knowledge is power’ kind of people and, while what I read sometimes frightens me, I would rather know what to expect than go in blind.

I’ve avoided anything that might thin my blood including green tea, fish oil and aspirin. Apart from increasing blood loss, these things also increase the risk of bruising. Great to add them post-surgically to prevent clots and other problems but they’re off the menu prior to surgery.

I’ve had wonderful support from family and friends, as always, and I’ve had several distracting visits and a trip to the local lake for a spot of kayaking with a friend whose unfortunately very familiar with surgery. She’s reminded me that the calmer I can be going in the better I will feel coming out.

I’ve had a bit of a cry while Graham held me and told me it was all going to be okay. He’s never lied to me.

I’m most nervous about my 8.30 appointment with nuclear medicine tomorrow morning. They’re going to inject me with radioactive dye to mark out the tumour site. There’s a clip there that was inserted way back at the start of treatment. They’ll use that as a reference point to mark out the tissue. This is likely to involve a number of injections into my breast. Ouch. Although probably not as painful as a biopsy or a clip insertion, both of which required the use of something the size of a small knitting needle. Breathe in. Breathe out. This too shall pass.

I’m less concerned about surgery. My surgeon is considered to be one of the best in the country. She’s got a reputation for two things; getting all of the cancer the first time she operates and achieving an outstanding cosmetic result. She wants me to bring my swimmers so she can make sure the scar on my breast is hidden. I would have happily lived with a life-saving scar but if it doesn’t need to be visible then that’s great too.

The other great thing about surgery is that they’ll give me really relaxing drugs before they knock me out for the duration. There’ll be that weird unconsciousness that feels like blinking and opening your eyes to find you’ve transported yourself somewhere else with no sense of time passing. Fingers crossed for no post-operative nausea and a fast recovery from the anaesthetic. Breathe in. Breathe out.

We’re going to leave soon to drive to Sydney where we’ll stay overnight. This seemed preferable to leaving here at 6.00am tomorrow morning to negotiate the notoriously bullying morning traffic. We’re staying at this place: http://www.anderledylodge.org.au It’s only about one kilometre from the Mater hospital, has a beautiful garden and is run by people of faith. It’s likely to be a much nicer environment that a cheap hotel. Graham will stay there for two nights. I’ll spend one of them in hospital.

I’m only in overnight.  I’ll be home on Thursday with my waterproof dressing and dissolvable stitches. I should be able to drive within a couple of days. The breast care nurse rang me yesterday to give me advice about what to wear (buttons down the front and easy to get in to), what to bring and what to do after surgery. The most important thing seems to be using my arm. I’m hoping to be back on my yoga mat doing some modified poses by Saturday.

Time to go and get ready. Keep me in your thoughts between 2.30pm and 3.30pm tomorrow.

See you on the other side.

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4 thoughts on “Preparing for Surgery

  1. My mastectomy is on Tuesday in Calgary…I am feelining so alone…this all happened so fast I can’t believe it..all I know how to do is be scared ….

    • Dear Jackie,
      I wish I lived closer that Australia so I could be there to give you a hug. When I wrote this post I was going in for another breast conserving surgery. I was reassured that it would all be fine. A week later I was told I needed a mastectomy.

      I remember so clearly how urgent it all felt and how frightened I was too. What you’re feeling is normal and healthy and to be expected (and I appreciate that this doesn’t make it feel any better at all!!). My best advice is to just try to take it hour by hour. I watched funny movies and gardened and wept and held my breasts in my hands and tried to imagine life without them. There’s a lot of information on my blog about the mastectomy and how I dealt with it. I hope some of it is useful to you.

      If you head forward in time from this blog entry you’ll see that I’m now three years post diagnosis, happily breast free and enjoying my life and my loved ones. I appreciate that this is only slightly comforting to someone in your position. My love and best wishes to you. Meg X

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